Taking Control: My health resolution for 2011

I’m not really the type of person who makes new year’s resolutions. I know myself too well – I’ll stick to it for a couple of weeks and then it will all fall by the wayside as quickly as it was thought of in the first place. Last year was going quite well – I decided to use an exercise ball 2-3 times a week in an attempt to strengthen my core muscles. I went out, bought a ball and DVD and stuck to it for over a month, before my now ex let James play with the ball whilst I was at work. It rolled too close to the fire and burst and melted rather spectacularly. I did buy another ball, but James was now petrified of them, and I didn’t even inflate it until August, when I was in my new house where there is no fire. I used it about 3 times and have now deflated it to make room for our Christmas tree. Oh well.

So this year I wasn’t going to make any spectacular resolutions, not even one of these “take a photo a day” ones, because I get distracted far too easily. But having acquired two new diagnoses this year, and finding a supportive doctor, I am now starting to think there are certain adjustments of attitude that I need to make in the coming year.

Social Learning Theory was first developed in 1954 by Rotter, as a means of explaining personality. Part of this, Locus of Control, was used to describe to what extent people felt they had control over the experiences and events in life that affect them. People can be described as either ‘Internal’ or ‘External’. Internals believe that their experiences are more often a direct result of their own behaviour and actions, whilst Externals are more likely to believe that their experiences are at least down in some part to ‘fate’ or ‘chance’, and/or the actions and influence of ‘powerful others’. The healthy balance would ideally be to recognise that our experiences are a combination of all three. Naturally this can also be applied to health status, and so the Health Locus of Control was born.

When I undertook my last research project for my Masters, on how people with ME/CFS cope, I asked my participants how much control they felt they had over their condition. I asked this in the broadest of terms, to see how they conceptualised ‘control’. It was a small sample, but all talked about control in terms of their symptoms – of how they could control the severity of symptoms through resting, but mostly that they felt their condition was largely uncontrollable. I found this very interesting, because I have to admit I hoped that at least one person might see it in the same way as me.

Personally, I’ve seen control as more than just physical control for almost six years now. It’s not just about controlling the physical side of illness for me. I find a great deal of strength from having a certain degree of mental control. It’s not positive thinking, because God knows I am not always positive, feeling unwell every day sucks beyond belief. I suppose it is related to the ways of thinking that Neuro-Linguistic Programming promotes – thinking about what you want rather than what you don’t. I find that gets me through.

So, thinking about what I want for 2011? I want more control. To a large extent, my general locus of control is often very much internal – I believe my achievements in life are solely down to me. I also blame myself severely for what I perceive to be ‘failures’, without looking at the circumstances surrounding them. Case in point: I got a 2.2 in my first degree, limiting my chances of ever working in Psychology (despite having a postgrad diploma and a Masters – often employers will still only consider those with high first degree results AS WELL as further qualifications). My family and friends are quick to point out I got a degree, I got it despite being unwell and missing a lot of lectures and that it proves my determination to succeed. I don’t see it that way a lot of the time, I often think of it as a failure as it’s not really done much to help me get anywhere.

However, like an external, when it comes to my health I ascribe my conditions largely to the bad luck of having some seriously faulty genetics (seriously, out of my whole family, I seem to be the only one to have fallen out of the ‘bad genes’ tree and hit every branch on the way down), and I have been happy to hand control over to the so-called ‘powerful others’ – namely my doctors. This has to some extent been because our society does have the attitude that under no circumstances do you tell a doctor what to do, or what you think might be wrong with you. So I have relied upon my doctors to dictate what treatment I have received to date.

I have now realised that unfortunately this has led to me suffering for longer than is necessary. In 2009 I gave up pursuing a diagnosis for my thyroid issues, and it was over 6 months of feeling unwell from that point (to say nothing of the struggle I had had for 6 months before that) before I found a doctor willing to medicate me. It then took another 7 months before I found a doctor willing to medicate me properly and actually put a diagnosis down in black and white in my notes. I didn’t push for it at any time, so fed up am I of being the nuisance patient. Then when I got my fibromyalgia diagnosis, the look on the rheumatologist’s face when I told him I’d always been told there was no treatment, or management, or pain relief for my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome will stay with me for a long time. I never pushed for anything because I was told I’d get addicted. I accepted that, and handed control over to my doctors.

Having found the doctor who has been willing to help me with my thyroid issues, who has prescribed me pain relief for my fibromyalgia, who has referred me for occupational therapy for my EDS, and who has now said to me that when we have these under control we can work out what symptoms of ME I still have and how we can work on them, I have discovered what other people I know have.

But I had to actively seek him out; I have to make sure I book my appointments with him well in advance so that I can get an appointment when I need it. The main thing is his support is empowering, and I don’t feel like I am burdening him by having a regular appointment. The steps I describe taking to make sure I see him are small changes, but they are the beginnings of me making an effort to take greater control of my health. I am learning that I can discuss things with him, say how I am feeling, what support I would like and not have to feel like I am wasting his time. This kind of support and empowerment makes me feel like I can make my own little changes too, that improve my quality of life. Slowly at first – I’m not about to go out and join a gym or run a marathon. That’s the kind of resolution that rarely works out. But I will make more of an effort to take my medication on time, instead of telling myself it’s ok to forget it, because being in less pain means I am more able to take some gentle exercise.  It seems simple, but it’s making these little changes, and being successful at them that inspires me to keep them up, and to keep making additional little changes, that all add up until my life looks quite different.  I’ve done it before to get this far before I had these additional conditions to contend with, now it’s time for the next steps.  I often spend time thinking about what I want, in general, not just in terms of my health. And by sorting out controlling my health I might be able to focus more on achieving my larger life goals.